Monday, August 2, 2010

Review: Beyond Bear's Paw, Jerome A. Greene

Jerome A. Greene,  Beyond Bear’s Paw, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman (2010).

“The wrenching tale of Chief Joseph and his followers is now legendary, but Bear's Paw is not the entire story,” the publisher’s description says. “In fact, nearly three hundred Nez Percés escaped the U.S. Army and fled into Canada. Beyond Bear's Paw is the first book to explore the fate of these ‘nontreaty’ Indians.”

The climatic battle of the 1877 Nez Percés War occurred at Bear’s Paw, Montana, about 45 miles south of the Canadian border – the "Medicine Line" that would protect them from the U.S. Army. The “nontreaty” bands were those that refused to sign the coercive treaty of 1863, which drastically reduced the official Nez Percés reservation.

If it only described what happened to the escapees, Greene’s book would still be a valuable contribution to the history of the Nez Percés and their relations with Anglo-Americans. Thoroughly researched, this history contains a wealth of information about the topic.

Fortunately for us as readers and students, Greene goes “beyond” Bear’s Paw in the best, broad sense. He does not just tell us what happened after Bear’s Paw, he adds crucial context, before and after. Factors far beyond the local actions and oratory profoundly impacted what happened on the spot. Conversely, the fate of the Nimiipuu influenced how other tribes acted, and reacted.

He opens with a background chapter summarizing what brought the Nez Percés to Bear’s Paw. For a more complete treatment, consult Greene’s: Nez Perce Summer, 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poos Crisis, Montana Historical Society Press, Helena (2000).

It’s important to understand that the Nez Percés War took place about a year after the Custer Massacre at the Little Bighorn. That clearly influenced how the government and the Army reacted to yet another Indian confrontation. After the Custer battle, Army pressure forced many Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians onto reservations. However, Sitting Bull and a large contingent of Sioux fled across the Medicine Line into Canada.

This alarmed Canadian authorities on two levels. The presence of such a large body of interlopers – 4,000 to 5,000 by most accounts – put a huge additional strain on northern buffalo herds. This caused hardship for the Canadian tribes, which depended on those herds for food, robes, and other essentials.

Also, by international law, the Sioux were “displaced persons” – given refuge, but not allowed to use Canada as a base to launch raids below the border. (Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Sioux. Library of Congress.)

Before the surrender at Bear’s Paw, Nez Percés emissaries traveled north to plead for Sioux help against the Army. Canadian authorities warned the Sioux that they would forfeit their right to asylum if they sent warriors south. When the Nez Percés refugees arrived, authorities had little attention to spare for their plight. They basically evinced “benign neglect,” leaving the Nez Percés to fend for themselves.

The Pacific Northwest bands found some shelter in encampments alongside the Sioux. Unfortunately, a few individuals exploited the situation to practically enslave the newcomers, forcing them to labor excessively for a pittance of food and shelter.

Meanwhile, the Canadians were desperately anxious for an accommodation that would send the Sioux back to the United States. U. S. negotiators countered with a proposal that the Sioux be moved further from the border, to lessen the possibility of sneak attacks. Of course, the Canadians did not have the resources for such an action.

Coincidentally, the first large group of refugees arrived while officials were exploring alternatives with Sioux leaders. The Nimiipuu’s stories and bedraggled condition only hardened Sioux resistance to any notion that they should return south.

Having set some of the context, Greene devotes a chapter to the various avenues that allowed an estimated 290 Nez Percés to reach the border. A fair number of them were out foraging when the Army attacked the main body. Some warriors filtered back into camp to join the fight, but other groups – men, women, and children – hid, under miserable conditions.

Later, Indians like the band under Chief White Bird refused to surrender and slipped out of camp. These escapes gave authorities an excuse – as if they needed any – to repudiate the agreement to return the captured bands to the reservation in Idaho.

This arose from a willful refusal to acknowledge the realities of Nez Percés politics. Tribes like the Nez Percés had no “head chief,” except perhaps a figurehead “appointed” by a white Indian Agent. Instead, they made decisions in a “council of equals.” Leadership depended upon an individual’s prestige and force of character.

Indeed, Chief Joseph surrendered, with his magnificently eloquent “I will fight no more forever” oration. However, in doing so, he spoke only for his own band, and any others who agreed with that decision.

As noted above, the fate of the escapees was heavily intertwined with that of the refugee Sioux. As herds in the north declined, Sioux bands, and a few Nez Percés, did begin to hunt below the border. Occasionally, they clashed with settlers or troops.

Greene’s research discovered yet another complicating factor: White traders routinely exaggerated the danger from these incursions. They hoped to induce the Army to build more posts along the border, providing them with lucrative contracts and customers.

More examination of how Eastern newspaper reports impacted events, for good or ill, might have aided our understanding of some of these issues. But perhaps those accounts were so muddled as to preclude any definitive conclusions.

When imminent starvation finally forced the Sioux’s surrender in 1880-1881, a few Nez Percés gave up also. Authorities sent the Nimiipuu to the Oklahoma reservation in Indian Territory, which the bands called “Eeikish Pah” – “the Hot Place.”
Nez Perce encampment along the Clearwater in Idaho, ca. 1898.
By then, a substantial fraction of the refugees had made their way back to the Northwest, or were on their way. They traveled as small groups. Greene concluded that “the largest [my emphasis] body of returnees to travel together back into the United States was a party of twenty-nine people … ” They also took their time. One returnee said, “I was three years getting back to Lapwai. We returned part of the distance each year.”

Greene devotes considerable space to Chief White Bird, who was eventually murdered under bizarre circumstances. The chief’s story, one of the few with decent documentation, provides one example of the trials faced by the relatively small number of refugees who stayed in Canada.

Many of those individuals eventually married into local tribes. Recently, despite a gap of generations, venturesome families have traced some of these intermarriage links and arranged reunions. Green concludes on a hopeful note: “That both groups today have sought and claimed their common heritage is a measure of their strength and unity after so long a time.”